It’s nothing unusual to see a movie fuse drama and comedy into one: Films ranging from “50/50” to “Toy Story 3” have deftly walked the balance between pathos and levity. Few films, however, jump between the two extremes with the severity of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Marvel’s newest film bringing together some of the storied company’s most obscure characters. This intensity is both a curse and a blessing: Although the pacing can suffer from abrupt shifts in tone, the film is ultimately richer for the broad emotional experience it provides. It is nothing like the light adventure it is advertised to be, but this is almost entirely a compliment.
The film unfolds from the perspective of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), an egotistical space mercenary who was abducted from Earth at a young age. After locating a mysterious orb in space, he eventually meets a band of other aliens on the run from the law: agile Gamora (Zoe Saldana), revenge-crazed Drax (Dave Bautista), the irascible Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel). After escaping from prison together, the team sets out to protect the contents of the orb from the sinister Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and to evade Peter’s mentor and former boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker). When the contents of the orb are eventually revealed, the ensuing conflicts force the five to discover the limits of their endurance and moral integrity.
Although Star-Lord and his compatriots are entirely new to most viewers, “Guardians” does a remarkably good job of making the audience feel at home with the heroes and the setting. The film introduces dozens of characters, but the story is completely coherent and deftly paced. From the cleverly choreographed caper that first brings the Guardians together to the moving scenes leading up to the final confrontation, the Guardians themselves are well-developed and achieve a level of complexity hard to find in Tony Stark or Thor. The humor is certainly bawdier than that found in other Marvel films, but it is, to a certain degree, hit-or-miss: The situations are often too serious to create an atmosphere conducive to laughs from the audience. Admittedly, the post-credits scene is probably the most hilarious 20 seconds of any Marvel film thus far.
Sometimes, the shifts in tone are jarring and feel slightly forced. The best example is probably the opening: Young Peter witnesses his mother die of cancer before being captured by an alien spacecraft. The film then immediately cuts to an adult Peter dancing through alien ruins to the 1974 song “Come and Get Your Love.” Although this bold opening sets the story in motion, some later jokes disturb the pacing, despite being justified by the story (a world-saving dance-off during the finale comes to mind).
On the whole, however, this is a deeply worthy film that deserves the critical and commercial success it has immediately obtained. The film has surely benefited from the Marvel brand, but doesn’t truly need it; with its strong mixture of characters and unique tone, the film would likely have succeeded regardless of the context in which it was released.